Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Present Perfect

In thinking about my final thoughts on David Copperfield, I came across the following passage from Peter Ackroyd's massive 1990 biography, Dickens; Ackroyd's observations mirrored many of my own, and I figured I couldn't much improve on them:
Of course we might say in the modern idiom that this is a fiction which is really "about" itself.  It is both a novel of memories and a novel about memory.  Memory brightens: ". . . I have never seen such sunlight as on those bright April afternoons . . ."; memory creates in the mind fresh associations: " . . . the Martyrs and Peggotty's house have been inseparable in my mind ever since, and are now;" memory revives the clearest and most detailed impressions: "the scent of a geranium leaf, at this day, strikes me with a half comical, half serious wonder as to what change has come over me in a moment . . . ;" memory retains the sharpest of all impressions: "the face he turned up to the troubled sky, the quivering of his clasped hands, the agony of his figure, remain associated with that lonely waste, in my remembrance, to this hour.  It is always night there, and he is the only object in the scene."  And memory brings back the earliest and most permanent impressions of childhood, like the occasion when David sees his mother for the last time: "I was in the carrier's cart when I heard her calling to me.  I looked out, and she stood at the garden-gate alone; holding her baby up in her arms for me to see.  It was cold still weather; and not a hair of her head, or a fold of her dress, was stirred, as she looked intently at me, holding up her child.  So I lost her.  So I saw her afterwards, in my sleep at school -- a silent presence near my bed -- looking at me with the same intent face -- holding up her baby in her arms."  But there is also the mystery of other memories, preconscious memories: ". . . a feeling, that comes over us occasionally, of what we are saying and doing, having been said and done before, in a remote time . . ."  Memory, then, as a form of resurrection and thus of human triumph; as David Copperfield looks out the window he had known so many years before and sees the old sorrowful image of himself as a child.  "Long miles of road then opened out before my mind, and, toiling on, I saw a ragged wayworn boy forsaken and neglected, who should come to call even the heart now beating against mine, his own."  Thus does memory recreate the self out of adversity, linking past and present, bringing continuity and coherence, engendering peace and stillness in the very centre of the world.  It is the purest and best part of Dickens's self, the source of his being, the fountain of his tears.  All of his writing and experience over the last two years had brought him to this point, this resurrection.
Dickens, 606-607.

I was struck, again and again throughout the book, with instances in which Dickens described himself, sitting at his desk, writing, perhaps looking up, seeing a face from his memory floating before him, as he worked to fix the phantoms of his memory on the page.  Dickens makes it clear in the writing of the book that he is limited to the present in which he is writing, and the past is available only to the extent he can access it or reimagine it in the present.  He is recording his memories, but only as they come to him or appear to him at the moment he is fixing those memories on paper.

Dickens recognizes in his narrative choices in Copperfield that the present, composite and determined as it is, is a prison, of sorts.  The past exists only insofar or only in the form in which we are able -- or choose -- to remember it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

An American Summer: Faulkner and Hemingway

So the voting ended up in a tie between Faulkner and Hemingway.  We had a dramatic one-day tweet-off.  The results: we voted to leave the Eurozone.  Just kidding.  Faulkner squeaked by.  But there was a lot of gnashing of teeth, so we'll do this: Faulkner in July, Hemingway in August.

You can start Absalom, Absalom! anytime.  We'll plan to finish by the end of July.  It's not a super-long book.  There are nine chapters.  We'll read like two-and-a-half chapters a week.

As always, please try to trick your friends into joining us.  And please let me know if the spirit moves you and you want to post something about the reading on the blog.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Vote for our next book

I finally motivated to delete some of the ancient items in the sidebars and set up a new poll for our next book.  So go ahead, random strangers, and help us pick our next book by voting in the sidebar to the right.  Right over there =======>  

One thing: I'd ask that if you vote, you make a good faith effort to try to actually read the book with the group, and maybe even participate with a tweet or blog comment or two.  It makes me so happy to receive signs of life from out there.

If you don't like the choices offered in the poll, feel free to leave your write-in selection below in the comments.

The poll closes on June 21.  We'll start reading on June 22.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

It's Summertime Again!

Arghhh. So busy. STILL trying to finish DAVID COPPERFIELD. I will. I really will. Meanwhile, I'm thinking of some Fun Summer Projects for us. Please tweet at me with book picks or leave a comment below. Here are some possibilities for our collective attention this summer:

- ABSALOM, ABSALOM! - Faulkner


- VANITY FAIR - Thackeray




- EMMA - Austen



A side project, for those of you who might want to brush up on your Spanish, is to attempt to read Carlos Fuentes's TERRA NOSTRA in Spanish. That'll be a longer-term project, as it's a long book, and it'll be slow going for those of us who are not at native-level Spanish reading and comprehension. But things are even weirder and more amazing when you don't fully understand them!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

David Copperfield Update

We are reading this book. (There have been some inquiries.) I'm running a little behind getting posts up on Copperfield, as I've been trying to round up some final posts on Nixonland. (Send me your posts if you have them!) Let me know if you'd like to put up a post or two on Copperfield. I would appreciate it!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Nixonland Post: Nixon vs. Romney (vs. Obama)

Making my way through Book II of NIXONLAND, reading about that fateful spring and summer of 1968, I kept thinking of the current GOP primary, and the superficial similarities of Nixon and the presumptive GOP nominee, Mitt Romney -- though, after even a minimal amount of thought, one realizes how violently different these two men are.

The obvious differences are background and pedigree: Romney the rich, successful, Harvard-educated son of a rich and revered governor, ambitious, but entitled and self-satisfied, to a fault; Nixon the son of a shopkeeper, striving and insecure, all elbows and desperation.

But both men seem to share the desperate willingness to do and say almost anything to win the Presidency. In his 1960 campaign, Nixon drove himself almost to exhaustion. In his 2008 campaign, Romney tried his hardest to reverse positions he had held for all of his political life and convince conservatives that he was one of them. For both men, their first presidential campaigns flamed out -- though Nixon's just barely.

Both men returned for their second run for the White House calmer, more assured, and as the default front-runners. And both played it exceedingly safe:
[A]s the GOP nominee in 1968, Nixon suffered from a maddeningly vague and platitudinous platform, featuring a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War, that made his campaign too easy to disregard or dismiss. The cautious, wary, disciplined Mitt Romney suffers from similar tendencies: So far, few voters can identify bold or dramatic proposals associated with his campaign . . . .
Daily Beast.

These are all, however, simply superficial similarities. Romney is a cipher. God knows what motivates him, besides his desire to be President. What does he want to do once he is President? What does he actually care about? What is the passion that drives him? WIth Nixon, it was clear that he wanted to do something with the office: as compromised and paranoid as he was, he truly did think he could do something to bring "peace" to world affairs. And it was obvious that he was deeply engaged in foreign affairs -- that's what excited him.

What engages Romney? What does he care about? Reorganizing ailing companies? Making bajillions of dollars? No one really knows. There's been speculation that the most important force in Romney's life is his religious faith, and his sense of duty to his faith. But he doesn't talk about this aspect of his life, leaving those of us who would like to figure out what Romney wants frustrated.

Nixon, in his jealousness, paranoia, insecurity, and bitterness, is a distasteful figure, but an all too human and understandable one. He's the Orthogonian outcast trying to get his revenge, trying to show the Franklins, beat them at their own game -- and perhaps finally win their respect. Romney's visage is out of Central Casting: he was born royalty. Nixon had to cake himself in make up; his handlers had to manage the lighting and the air-conditioning to make their boss look acceptable on television. Nixon remains such a powerful figure in our national memory because it was so incredible that such an "unpresidential" man could've ever been elected President. And if he had not torpedoed himself through his own paranoia, his tenure would perhaps have been looked back upon as highly successful. (Maybe.) Nixon is like Gollum: a villain whose evil has a long backstory, whose bad acts are, in the end, all too tragically understandable.

There is no foothold for one trying to relate to Romney. The facts suggest that he is virtuous, faithful to his family, committed to his church and to charity -- a good man by conventional standards. But his public persona -- and all that we know of him -- also suggest that he is plastic, equivocal, irresolute, willing to say whatever it is that he thinks people want to hear. He seems at once perfect and devoid of any guiding passions or principles.

Obama could, and does strike many as aloof and unrelatable. But we know that he is the biracial son of a single mother who relied for a while on food stamps. Obama is, in his own way, a striver of the same species and ruthless ambition as Nixon. (Throw Bill Clinton into this box as well.) As Americans, we tend to side with the strivers and the graspers, at least emotionally, over those born into privilege. Obama likely shares many of Nixon's dark qualities, unbeknownst to most of us, but I, at least, get the sense that there is more light and generosity in Obama's soul, given the lifetime of affirmation he's enjoyed since his childhood.

Romney, unlike Nixon, hasn't given us enough to ever see him as a tragic figure. We can't feel sorry for a Ken doll that utters empty phrases into microphones across the nation. Nixon was an asshole, but he wanted and craved and needed, and everyone could see that. One could hate Nixon, while sort of feeling sorry for him. One can neither hate nor love Romney.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

David Copperfield Reading Schedule

Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry to have been away for so long. Things have been super hectic here at book club HQ. ANYWAY, here is the long-promised reading schedule for DAVID COPPERFIELD, which we sort of started earlier this month:

3/2-3/9: Chapters 1-7

3/10 -3/16: Chapters 8-15

3/17 - 3/23: Chapters 16-23

3/24 - 3/30: Chapters 24-32 (MIDWAY)

3/31 - 4/6: Chapters 33-41

4/7 - 4/13: Chapters 42 - 50

4/14 - 4/20: Chapters 51- 57

4/21 - 4/30: Chapter 58-END; catch-up reading period

I'm not going to lie. It's a long book, and on this schedule, we'll be reading a bit over a hundred pages every week. But Dickens reads quickly, as many of you will recall from our BLEAK HOUSE read last year.

I'll be reading the Penguin Classics edition pictured above. I think it's a 1986 reprint. But citations should be easy to follow, given the chapter numbering.

Spread the word to your friends. As always, the more the merrier.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

NIXONLAND Reading Schedule

We're starting today. We'll aim to finish by Leap Day. We'll read somewhere north of a hundred pages a week, for seven weeks.

Week One: pages 1-127

Week Two: pages 128-226

Week Three: pages 227-356

Week Four: pages 357-458

Week Five: pages 459-568

Week Six: pages 569-685

Week Seven: pages 686-748 (END)
Good luck! And remember, “If you want to make beautiful music, you must play the black and the white notes together.” - RMN